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Posts published in “Courthouse Project”

A Courthouse Moment: ‘She’s a bully.’

Middle schoolers deem justice to be served when a bully gets pulled into the principal’s office. However, on March 16, that drama superseded the principal and fell into Judge Doretta Walker’s lap downtown at the Durham County Courthouse. What started as two middle school friends bumping heads turned into a dramatic feud between their mothers.

Which is why, on this morning, one mom, Alicia, stands before Judge Walker in Courtroom 5A, ready to present her case. (We are using only first names and initials to protect the children’s identity.) Dozens of people fill the courtroom, awaiting their own hearings.

Alicia calls her first witness – her daughter — to the stand. Wearing yellow crocs and braided hair, the girl, A., shuffles to the left side of the judge, who reprimands Alicia for taking her daughter out of school on a Wednesday morning to tattletale. The girl is 11.

With the help of her mother, the girl’s role is to convince Judge Walker to grant her mother’s request for a permanent protective order against Cori, the mother of A.’s former best friend.

The 11-year-old raises her hand. Judge Walker then begins an oath, which the girl repeats in a stumbling monotone. Her head barely above the rail of the witness box, she constantly adjusts the microphone to meet her mouth. She is about 4’8’’ tall.

Answering her mother’s questions, she explains her relationship with Cori’s daughter, R., and why their friendship started to sour. Both girls said some “un-nice things” to one another, she testifies.

“She’s a bully,” A. says. “She called me fat… that I should stop eating so many chips.”

Drama between the girls first erupted before Christmas break 2021, when R. accused A. of stealing her earrings. R. also claimed that she had seen A. cheating on a test. And A. allegedly hacked into R.’s laptop, which led to a meeting between the girls’ parents, their teacher and an assistant principal.

Then came a birthday sleepover at R.’s house, the event that shattered the girls’ friendship. Upon cross-examination, A. recalls what happened that night.

“Some girl’s parents died,” she says, “and I started laughing, and [R.] shoved me into a dresser.”

Pressing on, Cori asks what the girl said after R.“allegedly” shoved her. Craning her neck to reach the microphone, A. tells the court that she recalls saying: “Has your mom taught you any respect while she was (ever) sober?”

Then Alicia’s 12-year-old daughter takes the stand. The day before the hearing, she says, Cori violated a temporary no-contact order by putting something  (it’s not clear what) in the family’s mailbox. The court implemented that order because one day, unannounced, Cori had come to Alicia’s home with her daughter to try to settle the squabble.

Alicia slammed the door in Cori’s face as Alicia’s kids laughed nervously, the 12-year-old says. Cori then pounded on the door and begged Alicia to “do the right thing.” Text messages between the two parents — submitted as evidence — show a once-friendly relationship then suddenly turned cold.

So that’s why Alicia now wants the permanent no-contact order. She doesn’t even want Cori to show up at the girls’ school or to attend their soccer games.

But, unswayed, Judge Walker dismisses the case. After all, Alicia’s family plans to move to Florida before the end of the year. Which means that, as of right now, the mothers may have to glare at each other from across the soccer field. And their daughters will have to coexist in school, where they may learn that sometimes the best lesson is how to play nice.

 

 

 

 

 

A Courthouse Moment: ‘He’s not running.’

William McFadden, the Tech Lead for the Digital Forensics Unit at the Durham Police Department, takes the stand. He’s worked for 18 years for the police, 13 of which he’s spent on the digital forensics team. He wears a buzz cut and speaks into the microphone in front of him with ease.

It’s March 24, 2022, and Daniel Mohar is on trial for second-degree murder. On the night of June 5, 2019, a waitress at what was then called The Social Club in downtown Durham kicked a drunk Edward Tivan out of the bar. Tivan called her a tramp, prompting Mohar to shove him to the ground, where he hit his head on the pavement. Tivan died in the hospital two days later.

McFadden arrived at the scene of the fight on June 6, and investigators led him to the Solis Apartments (now Brightleaf on Main) to retrieve surveillance footage from the residence. Solis sits right next to The Social Club at 1005 W. Main St.

A prosecutor stands next to McFadden and dramatically holds up a shiny DVD for the entire room to see. It catches the light and almost twinkles. It is Exhibit 5A, a piece of the surveillance tape that McFadden retrieved.

Clips of “Law and Order” trials and “Judge Judy” rulings flash in our heads when we watch a moment like this. We assume that a trial, particularly a murder trial, will be full of the drama that we’ve seen on TV for years, and we even look to find it in places where it doesn’t lie. We look for it as the prosecutor slips the DVD into the video player.

A wall-sized screen drops from the ceiling on the right side of the room opposite the jury, as the lights dim. Two women, one younger and one older, rush out of the high-ceilinged courtroom. The heavy door echoes through the largely empty space.

Up until this point, the jury has appeared emotionally uninvolved. They might be watching the proceedings of a traffic citation, not a second-degree murder trial.

Until now. Now they are alert, one jury member even waking from his nap. Now this must be something hard to watch. Two women sitting right behind the defendant fall silent after non-stop whispering. Mohar fidgets in his slate-gray suit and tie. Even the deputies turn to face the screen.

The time is 10:08 p.m. on June 5, 2019.

All eyes are on the screen. It’s a video of the surveillance tape on an iPad. It’s a little shaky. The screen of the iPad is a bit smudged, and the actual surveillance footage is of low quality. There is no sound. The camera is pointing away from The Social Club, so you see people only as they enter and exit.

The street is lit from the parking garage of the Solis Apartments. Exhibit 5A plays. Across the street we can slightly see a man in salmon shorts and sneakers passing from right to left on the camera, but it’s difficult in the dark. William McFadden identifies him as the defendant.

The prosecution presents a second part of the surveillance tape, Exhibit 5B, taken from the Solis Apartments at 10:21 PM on June 5, 2019. Just thirteen minutes after the first video. Everyone’s eyes are still glued to the screen.

Now when the video plays we can clearly see Mohar walking away from the surveillance camera, away from The Social Club. He walks in and out of frame in the matter of seconds. The most dramatic movement he makes is putting a hand in his pocket. The video stops.

One woman sitting directly behind the defendant, with darker hair and a few white stripes mixed, turns to her friend and whispers “That wasn’t that bad.” After the video, the energy drains from the room. Jurors slump back into their seats. Others appear confused. Did we miss something? 

But in those 13 minutes, Mohar pushed Tivan onto the ground, where he suffered an injury that would eventually kill him.

After the video stops, defense attorney Emilia Beskind strides confidently towards the witness stand. She prefaces her cross-examination by saying she doesn’t plan on asking McFadden many questions.

“It is fair to say he is walking,” she begins.

“This is correct,” McFadden replies.

“He’s not running.”

“That is also correct.”

“He’s not power walking.”

“That is correct.”

“In fact, he’s walking the same way in this video as he does in [Exhibit A].”

“That is correct.”

“No further questions.”

Beskind turns and struts back to her chair, her shoulders back. Pleased to know her defendant didn’t rush from the scene, but coolly walked away after a fight that led to the death of another man.

McFadden steps down from the stand, and the two women who had escaped the room re-enter.

Mohar’s case closed just four days after opening statements. The case was downgraded from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter, and Mohar will only serve up to eight months.

 

 

Coming home: A network of Durham organizations supports people returning from prison

Omar Guess was dropped off by his parole officer in front of the homeless shelter on a Friday afternoon. After four years in prison, Guess was finally a free man. 

On the car ride back from prison, the officer looked at him through the rearview mirror and asked him what his plans were.

“I’m gonna get my life together,” said Guess, 48 at the time. 

“If I had a dime for every person that done told me that,” replied the officer, as Guess recalls. 

But Guess’ determination was sincere. He had gone back to prison before, but he had spent the past four years preparing for this moment. 

“I made up in my mind that I was going to do the right thing,” Guess said. “I was going to stay close with the right people.”

From prison, he wrote letters to reentry programs across the state and got connected to the Criminal Justice Resource Center in Durham. The county-funded program supports residents in the community who have had contact with the local criminal justice system.

For Guess, it was going to be his lifeline. But first, he needed to make it to Monday. 

Guess, who was four years sober, survived the long and difficult weekend at a shelter where other residents were using drugs. First thing on Monday morning, he walked to the resource center and demanded help. “I cannot stay in there,” he said. “I’m not giving myself a chance.” 

That afternoon he was moved into a transitional house.

Guess’ first four days of freedom highlight a few of the many challenges people released from incarceration face. In addition to finding a job and housing (both hard to obtain with a criminal record), oftentimes people coming home are treating substance abuse disorders and undiagnosed mental health issues. They also often lack healthy support systems. But in Durham, a growing network of community organizations — the Durham Local Reentry Council, Welcome Home, Jubilee Home and The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham — are all trying to address the struggles of reentry and give people a second chance. 

“We create these insanely high barriers for reentry. And then we’re surprised when people fail,” said Drew Doll, reentry coordinator at the Religious Coalition. 

In Durham, approximately 700 people return home from incarceration every year. Statewide, around 38% of those who are incarcerated are reincarcerated within two years.“The fascinating thing to me is not that half of the people are rearrested in three years but that the others aren’t,” Doll said.

“It is tougher out here coming home than it is in there,” Guess said.

The First 48 Hours

The challenges begin the moment you step foot outside the prison. With $45 in your pocket, you have 48 hours to meet with your parole officer. With no ID, no phone and maybe no place to stay, you have to figure out where your officer works and find transportation. 

At that first meeting, your parole officer will hopefully provide you with information about Durham’s numerous reentry support programs. Congrats, you have made it through the first 48 hours. 

The Durham Local Reentry Council (LRC) at the Criminal Justice Resource Center is typically the first point of contact. Grant-funded, the council works as a networker, providing assistance and connecting people to support services and employment opportunities. 

The reentry council is most effective when it can contact inmates before they leave prison. Prior to the pandemic, it received a list of names from the N.C. Department of Public Safety detailing who was about to be released. The council would write letters, assess what services inmates needed in advance and build relationships before the tough challenges began. During the pandemic, those lists stopped coming, making it harder for reentry organizations to do their job. 

After incarceration, the most immediate need is housing. About 50% of people leaving prison have no home to return to and request housing. The reentry council can pay for 60 days at transitional houses across the community, giving them a chance to get back on their feet. 

“It’s hard to ask an individual to go look for work when he doesn’t know where he is going to sleep,” said Demetrius Lynn, who runs the Durham reentry council.

Once settled, clients work with the council to devise plans that fit their needs. The council connects them with mental health services, substance disorder treatment, job training and other reentry support programs. 

Need work boots? The council can help buy them. Need forklift training? It can pay for a class at Durham Tech. Need healthcare? The council will get you connected. 

Because of the CJRC and the reentry council, Durham has some of the best reentry support in the state, said Doll. According to Lynn, out of 140 intakes in the county in 2021, only two have returned to prison. 

Lynn was formerly incarcerated himself. When he was released, his college degree was useless because no one would give him a job. Years later, Lynn gets frustrated because, at age 48, he is still talking about mistakes he made at 24 years old. “We have to stop looking at the charge and look at the individual,” Lynn said.

For many of his clients, the social isolation that often follows release can be debilitating. One client, who had just served 32 years, said to Lynn, “‘Man, I just rather go back to prison…everybody looks at me like I’m an alien. Nobody understands.’” 

Lynn’s solution is to build a network of people who you don’t want to let down. “If you are standing behind me, and if I fall, you are probably gonna catch me? Then I’m not as hesitant about falling,” Lynn said.

A Cruel Bureaucratic Cycle

Welcome Home is a city-run program that offers immediate support after release. They provide a box containing some perishable food, toiletries and a cell phone paid for six months. But according to program creator Chuck Manning, the most valuable service they provide is 30 hours of “peer support.” 

Peer support is a form of counseling that centers around lived experience. To be trained as a peer support specialist, you must have had contact with the criminal justice system yourself.

In reentry, it is important to talk with people who know what incarceration feels like, explains Manning, a peer support specialist himself. “You have individuals who can identify with not only the emotional but the mental strain of being away from your family and your loved ones and re-acclimating yourself back into society,” said Manning.

Manning was in and out of the justice system from age 11 to 34. In total, he lived seven years of his life behind bars.

After spending 14 months in jail only for his charges to be dismissed, he swore he would never go back. When he was released in 2015, no one would hire him. To make money, he started his own catering company and worked as an anti-violence activist with Bull City United, a violence interruption program that works to stop shootings in Durham. Four years ago, the City of Durham’s Innovation Team hired him to work on reentry in Durham and he started the Welcome Home program. 

For Welcome Home, he manages a caseload of 15-20 people for whom he provides peer support. In addition to running the program, he heads his own nonprofit, Locked up to Living Life,  which focuses on reentry, violence interruption and outreach. If that weren’t enough, Manning is currently in the process of contacting every program manager at the 57 prisons across North Carolina to tell them about Welcome Home.

For people involved in the program, the recidivism rate drops to 13%, says Manning. 

In the first few weeks home, peer support specialists are key to navigating the numerous logistical issues people face after release. 

The first is documentation. To get a job, you need a state-issued ID and social security card. To get an ID, you need a social security card. To get a social security card, you need a birth certificate. And to get a birth certificate, you generally need a state-issued ID. 

Manning is currently working with a 19-year-old who has been incarcerated since he was ten years old who has never had any form of ID. “We don’t even know where to start with him. Which one do you get first?” Manning said. 

It is a cruel bureaucratic cycle, and even with help, it can take weeks to get all the papers together. Which means four to six weeks before it is even possible for someone to find employment. 

For at least 9 months, you still owe $40 a month to your parole officer, or you risk being in violation of your parole. 

“The day you come out again, nobody tells you this, but you’ve moved from no one expect[ing] you to make decisions, to where everybody expects you to make decisions,” Doll said. “They just expect you to understand that it is now your responsibility to take care of all this stuff.”

Manning wishes that the state, which has all the information, would help inmates gather all this documentation prior to release. “You know, it’s kind of odd that you wouldn’t want to place someone back into society with the best chance of success,” Manning said.

This is Home

Jubilee Home, on the corner of  E. Umstead and Dawkins streets, looks innocuous from the outside. Inside, its bright green doors, creaky wooden floors and pinball machine in the living room make it feel warm and homey. The nonprofit provides supportive housing for residents who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. The home, which started in January of 2020, grew out of the vision of its founder David Crispell. 

As a Duke Divinity student, Crispell worked as a chapel intern in a youth facility. In his final weeks, two teenagers he had grown particularly close with were facing release. One attempted suicide and the other assaulted an officer in order to remain incarcerated, Crispell said. 

He was initially angry and frustrated with them. 

“Now I recognize that they both looked at the two paths ahead of them. One that’s going home, and one that’s staying incarcerated.” 

The two teenage boys were already high-ranking gang officials. That suggests they were likely made to be drug mules from a young age, explained Crispell.

“They recognized that going home was either a path to death or more incarceration. And they chose the easier, or safer path.” 

After finishing school, Crispell dreamed of creating a community that those two young men could have joined. Jubilee Home’s initial mission was to serve men ages 17 to 24,  but as soon as the pandemic began, the program removed its age restriction and started taking people in. 

Jubilee Home has six beds and 24-hour peer support on staff. Three out of five people working on the team are peer support specialists and have dealt with incarceration or substance abuse themselves.

Jubilee Home has a lower barrier to entry than other transitional housing. The program does not have a zero-tolerance use policy for drugs and it accepts people with mental health diagnoses. If Lynn at the LRC thinks someone would be a good fit, he will call Crispell. About once a month, the home has an empty bed available. Most people stay three to four months, but people can stay up to a year. 

“We try to make people feel like this is home,” said David Logan, who lives in the house as a 24-hour peer support specialist. “You try to help people learn how to live a normal life.”

Radical Forgiveness

Reentry isn’t just about getting a license, a job and a place to live. It is about rebuilding community. That is what the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham is working towards through its reentry faith teams. 

Faith teams consist of three to five volunteers from a congregation and a person going through the reentry process. Distinct from many other services, the goal of these groups is not to fix a problem. 

The goal is to simply “be with.” 

Faith teams gather every other week to eat food, play board games, cook meals and spend time together.

“We’re not trying to fix anybody,” Doll said. “We’re not intentionally trying to change anybody. We’re not trying to do anything other than develop really, really tight friendships. When you’re building friendships, you’re building a network of support.” 

At the heart of this work is the value of radical forgiveness. “Infinite belonging says no one is disposable…And boundless compassion says no one has sinned so greatly they are outside the grace of God,” Doll said. 

In 2009, after being released from incarceration, Doll was supported by a faith team himself. After a year, he stayed on as a volunteer. He now manages all 22 faith teams across Durham and Orange counties. 

The impact goes beyond those who are reentering. Jim Petrea, who leads the faith team at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church, started this work because he wanted to get uncomfortable. At first, making friends with a stranger was a challenge, but now “I don’t have a better friend in the world,” Petrea said. 

I told you so

Omar Guess has been out of prison for four years now. He is currently working for the county as a supervisor for the Department of Solid Waste. In February, he began taking classes to get his HVAC certification. 

Guess knows the importance of maintaining structure. With the help of his faith team, he recently moved into the apartment above a church. He is eight years clean. 

He knows his challenges are not all behind him. 

“Everybody is not going to welcome you in with open arms because you are a convicted felon,” Guess said. “You know, that’s a big F on your report card.” 

But he tells people his story because he hopes to inspire others in the same position. “I’m a walking testimony,” he said. 

He occasionally runs into his old parole officer at his job, who tells him how proud he is of Guess. 

And Guess gets to say, “I told you so.” 

Above: Drew Doll is reentry coordinator for the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Photo by Josie Vonk — The 9th Street Journal 

Prosecutor spotlights victims’ needs — in and out of court

Three years ago, Josh Sotomayor offered to mop the floors of the District Attorney’s office. 

He had entered law school four years earlier with hopes of being a defense attorney. He graduated and realized he could better transform the criminal justice system from within. 

Shortly after Sotomayor’s graduation, Durham D.A. Satana Deberry assumed office and ushered in her platform of reform. Half her office turned over, positions opened up, and Sotomayor applied. 

“I’ll mop the floor,” he recalls telling Michelle Cofield, deputy chief of staff, during his interview. “Just hire me.” 

In June 2019, Sotomayor was sworn in as a Durham Assistant District Attorney. 

Under Deberry’s leadership, Sotomayor, who handles domestic violence cases with the special victims team, is now part of the change he wanted to see in law school. But rethinking how to prosecute crime also means rethinking traditional approaches to caring for victims, inside and outside of the courtroom. 

“If someone feels heard, and feels actually heard instead of just lip service, it really goes a lot further than you would expect,” said Sotomayor, 30, who grew up in Charlotte. “They just want to feel that the [DA’s] response is tailored to what their needs are.” 

* * *

On a Wednesday afternoon in November between court sessions, a legal assistant knocks on the door of Sotomayor’s office. 

Sotomayor, the least experienced felony prosecutor in the D.A’s office, calls her in. The prosecutor sits behind his uncluttered desk in a white button-down shirt and a red, white, and blue striped tie. His dark hair is short, not quite a buzzcut, and he has a mustache, which sometimes looks out of place in contrast with his youth. 

A red Solo cup, a pink water bottle, and an empty Red Bull can all stand in front of him. A card on his desk reads, “Bless this mess.” 

Her voice hints at panic as she hands him a Post-It and asks if he’s familiar with a victim. Sotomayor repeats the name and his eyebrows furrow. In early September, the victim’s boyfriend had broken down her door and strangled her. 

The legal assistant frantically explains that the victim just called the front desk. The victim spoke so fast that the legal assistant didn’t catch the defendant’s name. 

“She said that he’s outside [her house],” the legal assistant says, out of breath. “We told her to hang up and call 911.” 

Sotomayor turns to his computer, furiously typing into a database in search of the case and the defendant’s name. His urgency is justified: women who have been strangled by an intimate partner are 750% more likely to be killed by the same person with a gun. Sotomayor’s controlled demeanor doesn’t break. 

Sotomayor calls up a corporal at the Durham Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and tells him what happened. 

“Can I send you the information and someone gets sent out over there?” he asks. He hangs up and says nonchalantly to the room, “Okay.” 

“Good to go?” the legal assistant asks. He nods and she exhales. The whole interaction is over in seven minutes. 

A large part of Sotomayor’s job is exchanging information and updates on “ongoing series of events that need attention” with groups like the Durham Police Department, Legal Aid, the Family Justice Center and the Durham Crisis Response Center. He not only builds cases; he also makes sure the victim is safe and supported. 

“Not every prosecutor is going to be available to you all the time,” said Jeff Whitson, a legal advocate for the Durham Crisis Response Center, who helps victims navigate the legal system. 

But Sotomayor makes himself available. Some days, the phone calls start before he even gets to the office at 8 a.m. and continue through the night. 

“The amount of information that is being generated is oftentimes a lot faster than anyone can keep up with,” he said. 

* * *

Sotomayor is, inadvertently, drawn to messes. He can’t explain it, except that he enjoys untangling intricacies and complex situations until justice finds its way out. Stalking and domestic violence cases are almost always messy. 

A stalker might use a number of different methods on multiple instances over time. Sotomayor connects each instance to form one larger case, increasing efficiency for the court system and reducing stress for the victim.  

An assistant district attorney’s interest and skill in finding the connections in these cases is rare, according to SVU team lead ADA Kendra Montgomery-Blinn. 

“We’ve started to consider [Sotomayor] a specialist,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote in an email. “Law enforcement seeks him out in advance to consult during their investigations.” 

Victims of domestic violence often hesitate to speak to the DA’s office, show up to court, or pursue a case. On average, victims of domestic violence will leave and return to an abusive relationship seven times before they make the decision to go for good. 

“We let people know that just because you’re not moving forward this time, we’re not going to judge you if you come back to us,” Sotomayor said. “The end goal is that when there is a problem and you are on that seventh time, you can trust us with what’s going on.” 

To build that trust requires effort. It means listening to victims’ traumatic experiences and connecting them with victim services. For those who want to pursue charges, Sotomayor guides them through a legal system that is not designed for victims. For those who don’t want to move forward, building trust means accepting that choice, even if, to him, it doesn’t seem like a safe move. 

“Sometimes it seems like a fool’s errand,” Sotomayor said. But other times, the patience and relationship-building pay off. 

In March 2021, a woman was adamant about not proceeding with a domestic violence case against her husband. She and Sotomayor talked for two hours before court one day, but she wouldn’t budge.

“I don’t get frustrated at this job often, but it would’ve been easier to talk to a wall about it. She wasn’t hearing it, which is fine, because I’m not telling people how to react,” he said. “But it was concerning.”

In the end, the case was dismissed at the victim’s wish. 

Several months ago, Sotomayor picked up a phone call and found her on the other end. She was calling to tell him that he was right. Her husband stopped abusing her for a month after the dismissal. Then he returned to his old ways. 

Now, with the help of the Family Justice Center and Legal Aid, she is filing for divorce and custody of their children. 

Whitson said victims whom Sotomayor worked with described him as very approachable. He pointed out that Sotomayor is always mindful of the kind of justice a victim seeks, including classes, conviction, plea or jail time for the defendant. 

“He actually listened to what they had to say,” Whitson said. “And for the most part, respected their wishes. I can’t remember a time when he completely went against a client’s wishes.” 

* * *

As Sotomayor describes getting lost in the D.A.’s office on his first day, his phone rings. It’s the corporal with an update. Durham police have arrived at the apartment complex of the woman who called earlier. 

“[The defendant’s] sister lives across the hallway,” he says after hanging up. He raises his eyebrows and pauses dramatically. “Allegedly.” 

Sotomayor finds out that there is an existing no-contact order against the defendant by the victim, but the victim’s apartment complex’s address isn’t listed on the order. It’s unclear, then, if the defendant is violating the order by visiting his sister.

* * *

When Sotomayor started at the DA’s office, he feared that he wouldn’t be able to hack it — the domestic violence caseload, the secondary trauma. 

“You’re dealing with someone’s worst day. Something tremendous has happened and tremendous in the worst possible sense,” he said. “How is that going to go?” 

But on a wall in his office, under a triptych of Washington Crossing the Delaware that he bought on Amazon, hangs a plaque — his Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor, which he received in April 2021 from the U.S. Attorney’s offices for the Eastern, Middle, and Western districts of North Carolina and the state’s Victims Services Interagency Council. Those who nominated him, according to a press release, noted his “victim-centered approach” and “genuine concern for the victim’s safety” in a domestic violence case. 

“These kinds of cases are emotionally wearing,” Montgomery-Blinn wrote. “But they are also the cases where a dedicated prosecutor, like Josh, can have the biggest impact.” 

Sotomayor no longer has the same concerns. Asked if the demands of the role can lead to burnout, his answer was simple. If you really care about the work — the cases and the people — you can do this job for a long time. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Durham prosecutor Josh Sotomayor received a Victim Services Award for Distinguished Prosecutor in 2021.

A judge in twilight: impartiality, partisanship, and a life on the bench

Judge James Hill looks at home sitting on the bench wedged in the dim corner of Courtroom 5A in the Durham County Courthouse. A gleaming silver medallion emblazoned with the North Carolina state seal and mounted to the wall gives the space an air of grandeur. But Hill’s warmth is palpable, even with the plastic shield that separates him from the rest of the courtroom.

On a Wednesday afternoon last October, a defense attorney explains that her client is prepared to fulfill his two-day jail sentence, “but doesn’t want to lose his job.” 

The young man clasps his hands together and nervously explains that he is contracted to work an upcoming three-day shift but can’t report to his job on time if he is locked up.  

“You could go to jail right now,” the silver-haired, bespectacled Hill says, with a southern drawl. “And I could let you out at 5:00 a.m.” 

 The defendant’s eyes widen with relief, as a muscular bailiff handcuffs him. This savviness has served Hill well since he was first elected to the Durham County Court in 2002.  

For almost two decades, Hill, 71, was a fixture at the courthouse. But after losing his campaign for reelection in 2018, he now only comes to the courthouse occasionally as an “emergency” judge. Hill’s career is the story of a man who prided himself on his impartiality, only to suffer the consequences of a very public courtroom controversy – and  the arrival of partisan judicial elections. 

After being elected as judge in a nonpartisan election in 2002, he faced no opposition for his seat on the bench in 2006, 2010, or 2014. In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly put political parties on the ballot for District Court judicial elections. 

The state legislature’s decision paved the way for a Democrat to challenge Hill in overwhelmingly blue Durham County. For the first time since 2002, voters saw that Hill was a Republican and that his opponent, Clayton Jones, a former public defender and assistant district attorney in Durham County, was a Democrat.

In the race, Hill’s experience and candor on the bench were liabilities. Jones garnered 76% of the vote, while Hill won only 24%. 

The Beginnings

 Aside from the three years he spent in Alabama at Cumberland School of Law, Hill is a lifelong resident of Durham County. His road to the judiciary began when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer in 7th grade. 

 The self-described “little country boy” from Rougemont is the youngest of three, born to hard working parents who both had a 9th grade education. 

 “If you would have taken a blind look at my background, you would say that guy was never going to amount to much of anything,” Hill says. 

 He worked his way through school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a laborer and carpenter, when he estimated that cost of attendance was $2,000 a year.

 As a lawyer, Hill’s practice ranged from civil and juvenile cases to murder cases. It was good preparation for the rotating hats he would later wear as a District Court judge. 

 Before the Durham County Public Defender’s Office was established in 1990, private attorneys would sign up to represent those who could not afford a lawyer. 

 Hill “got on all the court-appointed lists,” as you did back then. 

 One of his first clients was a man with an IQ of 64, which generally indicates an intellectual disability. The man had relieved himself on the busy corner of Trinity Avenue and Mangum Street during peak morning hours and had been charged with indecent exposure. 

 Hill got the man off with a Prayer for Judgment Continued—a legal device that suspends a conviction even when defendants have been found guilty or have pled guilty. To this day, Hill considers it a win.

He looks at people straight from eye to eye,” says Judge  Archie Smith, Clerk of Superior Court. “He doesn’t consider himself any better than anybody else.”  

‘I didn’t start this race to lose’ 

 In 1994, all five of the Durham District Court judgeships and three of the four Superior Court judgeships were for the taking. Then-Chief District Court Judge Kenneth Titus told The Durham Herald-Sun that it was going to be a “wicked year.” 

 After failing to score an appointment, Hill was eager for a spot on the Durham District Court bench. The Democratic primary went into a runoff. 

 Outwardly, Hill remained hopeful. 

 “I didn’t start this race to lose,” he told The Herald Sun after the vote count.

Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, who was then a lawyer, beat Hill by some 1,100 votes in the low-turnout run-off.  

 In the years after the election, Hill, once President of the Durham County Young Democrats and treasurer of the Durham County Democratic Party, switched his party affiliation. 

 “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me,” says Hill, who declines to say much more. 

In 2001, the North Carolina legislature took political affiliation off the ballot for district court races. Hill ran again with the slogan “A judge Durham will be proud of.” He touted his 25 years of legal experience and his commitment to impartiality. 

 Hill lost the open primary, but ultimately clinched the judgeship by beating William A. Marsh III by a 12-point margin in November. 

 As for his status as a Republican, “at that time, not much was made of it,” Hill says.

 On the Bench 

 To Hill, District Court is the “people’s court,” and he says he strove to run it as such. He fondly recalls bantering about construction-related technicalities with one defendant. He remembers everyone else in the courtroom being bewildered, thinking “What in the world are you talking about?”

 “But I felt like that was good for me and him,” Hill says. “To let him know I knew what he was going through.” 

 Just a year into his courtship, Hill ruled that a North Carolina law imposing a $50.00 application fee to obtain a court-appointed lawyer was unconstitutional.

 He was the first judge in the state to do so. Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson affirmed Hill’s ruling. The North Carolina Supreme Court followed suit. He recalls this as one of his proudest rulings. 

 “I didn’t really think about political repercussions,” Hill says. “I just did what I thought was right.” 

  As a jurist, Hill presided over Mental Health Court in its infancy.  He also established and ran a truancy court—which creates legal penalties for excessive repeated unexcused school absence—for more than ten years at his middle-school alma mater, Carrington Middle School, until the idea fell out of favor with the prosecutor’s office. 

 Elections Made Partisan 

The 2018 judicial election was unlike any Hill had faced before. The North Carolina General Assembly had just recently made judicial elections partisan again, and Hill would have to run as a Republican candidate in a deeply blue district. 

In his last term, he also suffered a blow to his professional reputation. 

 Asked in a pre-election interview what decision made by the incumbent he most disagreed with, Jones, Hill’s opponent, cited a moment in Hill’s that stained his candidacy.

In a video viewed almost 20,000 times since its release by INDY Week in 2014, Hill lambasts an estranged couple at a custody hearing.

 The nearly seven-minute clip from the conclusion of a two-day hearing shows Hill repeatedly calling RiShawna and Collin Morrison “idiots.” 

 “Y’all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby,” Hill tells them. “He didn’t ask to be born.” 

 When RiShawna protests Hill’s ruling for joint-custody, Hill rattles off jail sentences, what he calls “trip[s] to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast”: first 24 hours, then 48, then 72, all the way up to 30 days. 

 “I’m going to jail for being a good mother?” RiShawana asks as chaos erupts. 

 RiShawana flails against the deputy who comes to restrain her and manages to free herself from his bear hug when he tries to handcuff her. Hill exits as others in the audience enter the tussle. 

 By the end, nine deputies have entered the courtroom. RiShawna, who Hill now calls a “good parent,” was reportedly cut and bruised. 

 After INDY Week broke the story, Hill received a public reprimand from the state’s Supreme Court for his behavior during the case. It was a finding for a minor violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Only 14 public reprimands have been issued since 2015. 

 Despite the reprimand, the commission’s team lauded Hill for his “good reputation in the community,” above average Judicial Performance Evaluation—4.19 compared to 3.56—and cooperation in the investigation. 

“My choice of words left something to be desired,” Hill says. “My goal in the hearing was to point out to them who the most important person in that hearing was, the child. What they were doing was hurting that child, who was innocent.”

“That was my goal,” Hill says. “That was my goal.”

During the 2018 race, Jones, a Democrat who called himself a proponent of “judicial activism,” brought Hill’s record into question, including the truancy courts. Jones said he would work to reduce the burden of fines and fees and expand pretrial release programs and drug and mental health courts.

“For 15 years, I just saw things—things that just didn’t sit right with me,” Jones said at a debate hosted by Kids Voting Durham. He referenced Hill’s habit of calling kids “babies” and his practice of shackling juveniles in court, which Hill claimed he did for the safety of the children.

Hill was unable to persuade Durham County voters to look past his affiliation with the Republican Party or the public reprimand. The even-keeled Jones cruised to victory with 76% of the vote. 

Judge Nancy Gordon, a Democrat elected to the Durham County District Court four years after Hill, takes issue with the politicization of judgeships, and she respects Hill for his impartiality. 

 “[Hill] tried really hard to not let people manipulate him with [his personal beliefs],” Gordon says, “and you get points for that.” 

Now, Hill only spends the occasional day in court, sometimes working alongside Jones. Otherwise, he goes on long morning walks, attends a prayer group on Tuesdays, and takes care of his grandson. 

“If you don’t stay busy, you’ll die,” he says. 

PHOTO ABOVE: Judge James Hill won three elections before being defeated in 2018, when Durham County compelled candidates for the bench to declare their political party.

 

Census miscounted Durham prisoners — for 20 years.

In all likelihood, most Durhamites will never see Butner Federal Correctional Complex.

North Carolina’s only federal prison is just 11 miles from Brightleaf Square, straddling the line between Durham County and neighboring Granville County. But the roads that lead to it are almost deserted. Acres of forest isolate the complex, and driving northeast on Old Oxford Road, signs for a pharmaceutical business park and the entrance to Historic Stagville plantation are among the only hints of civilization.

Perhaps this remoteness is part of why, between 1990 and 2010, the U.S. Census incorrectly counted all Butner prisoners as residing in Granville County—despite a substantial portion of them living on the Durham side of the county line. 

Census data guides over $1 trillion in federal spending each year and determines the shape and size of counties’ voting districts. 

The miscount, which involved thousands of federal detainees, skewed such decisions. It warped Granville County voting maps and caused at least one federal department to misallocate funds. And it throws Durham and Granville into a nationwide debate over whether the census should count prisoners as residents of the counties where they’re incarcerated—a practice that activist Gino Nuzzolillo calls “a remnant of white supremacy.”

The miscount

Five facilities—a medical center, a prison camp, a low-security prison and two medium-security prisons—comprise Butner Federal Correctional Complex (FCC). The buildings cluster together at the south end of the institution’s 1,600 acres of mostly undeveloped land.

The Durham/Granville county line has bisected the complex since it opened in 1977. A Durham Geographic Information Systems map shows the line cutting through the oldest part of Butner FCC, Federal Correctional Institution I (FCI-I), with most of FCI-I’s buildings falling on the Durham side. 

A Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population report in February 2000 counted 825 prisoners as residing in this medium-security facility. The report also counted 302 prisoners at Butner Federal Prison Camp, which is entirely in Durham County.

All Durham federal prisoners resided in Mangum Township, the county’s northernmost subsection. However, the 2000 decennial census—taken just two months after this population report—counted zero detainees in Mangum Township. So did the 1990 census.

In other words, two decades of censuses failed to count any of Durham’s hundreds of federal prisoners as residing in the county.

Initially, the Census Bureau repeated its miscount in 2010. But administrators noticed something amiss while reviewing that year’s data.

 The Bureau quietly issued a correction. Mangum Township didn’t have zero prisoners—it had 2,387 prisoners. Conversely, Granville County’s recorded incarcerated population dropped from 5,631 to 3,244.

The Census Bureau did not update its publicly available datasets to reflect this information, and no major media outlets appear to have reported the error.

Durham Planning Manager Scott Whiteman, who assumed his current position in 2015, said that he “can’t confirm” whether the Census Bureau notified Durham County when it discovered the mistake. However, he believes he might have once heard his predecessor mention the miscount. 

“I’m glad it’s correct now,” he said.

Districting problems

The miscount had a measurable impact on Granville County’s voting districts.

The 2010 redistricting cycle found North Carolina legislators embroiled in controversy over gerrymandered maps. While state officials tussled over where and how to draw congressional district lines, Granville County drafted its voting maps using the original 2010 census data—data that incorrectly counted over 2,000 Durham County residents.

These residents made up about 4% of Granville County’s recorded population.

Most federal prisoners can’t vote, so the miscount had little impact on how many voters cast ballots in the county. However, Granville County uses census data to draw the boundaries of its seven voting districts. Each of these districts elects its own county commissioner and school board member.

Since Butner FCC’s district had fewer residents than census data indicated, this meant that the area was overrepresented in the county government. Relative to its population, it was bigger than it should have been, and its residents’ votes carried more weight than votes elsewhere in the region.

County officials drafted a new district map in March 2013 after the Census Bureau notified them of the mistake, according to a county press release. Reporting on a tangentially related story this October, Charlotte news station WFAE obtained documents showing where the county adjusted district lines.

Officials carved off a sizeable chunk of District 7, which contains the town of Butner, and gave it to District 3, which contains the federal prison. They then shifted the borders of two other voting districts to reestablish a balance.

Prior to the 2013 correction, Granville County’s districts had presumably reflected flawed census data since 1990.

Economic impacts

The error’s economic consequences are more difficult to measure.

On the Granville side of the county line, a five-minute drive from the federal prison, the town of Butner is an unusual place. In contrast to the deteriorating infrastructure that mars many of North Carolina’s small towns, Butner’s town hall and post office are modernist gems.

Auburn accent colors, large windows and geometric metal features distinguish the buildings. A plaque outside the town hall dates its construction to 2011, while a flag across the street declares that Butner incorporated in 2007.

Butner owes most of its growth to the numerous federal and state institutions that cluster around it. In addition to the federal prison, the town of some 8,000 people also contains a state psychiatric hospital, a substance abuse treatment center, a regional hospital, a center for people with disabilities and a home for at-risk veterans.

But flawed census data also played a role in the town’s economic success.

In 2017, an analysis by The George Washington University found that the federal government relied on census counts to distribute $1.5 trillion to over 300 programs nationwide. These include heavy hitters like highway planning and construction, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and low-income housing loans.

Not all of these programs distribute funds on a county-by-county basis. For instance, a spokesperson at the Department of Health and Human Services said that none of that agency’s numerous programs would have been affected by the miscount.

At the North Carolina Department of Transportation, however, a spokesperson said the oversight probably impacted two kinds of budget allocations: 5311 funds and the Rural Operating Assistance Program. Both of these provide public transportation in rural areas.

The NCDOT determines how much money to give these funds based on the U.S. Census’s county population estimates. The miscount would have resulted in more money going to Granville County and less to Durham County between 1990 and 2010.

Fortunately, N.C. State Demographer Michael Cline said that the federal government waited for the Census Bureau to review its data before allocating funds based on the 2010 numbers. So that year’s error had no bearing on federal funding.

Who was responsible?

On a cold November morning, one of Butner FCC’s medium-security prisons appears to be an unassailable fortress.

A double layer of chain link fence encircles the buildings’ gray concrete slabs. Lengths of razor wire cover the fences and fill the gap between them, glittering in the sunlight like an enormous steel serpent.

A bus with black tinted windows rumbles along a path just inside the fence. A few crows caw from the woods. Otherwise, silence. 

Cline said that the Census Bureau counts prisoners “administratively.” Instead of having a census taker go from cell to cell, a prison official simply sends the Bureau a record of their institution’s population.

But who was that official? And what Census Bureau employee was in charge of Butner FCC’s data?

Cline, who has worked with the Census Bureau since 2017, said he didn’t know what took place at his agency 10, 20 and 30 years ago. And the prison complex was even less forthcoming.

Representatives did not respond to multiple emails, and the phone line for the public information officer’s facility appears to be nonoperational. Phone calls rang for several minutes and then dropped.

The BOP website lists all of Butner FCC’s subsections as being in Granville County, making no mention of Durham County. It’s possible this played a role.

But it’s unclear who specifically was responsible for the census miscount.

It is similarly unclear whether the 1980 census, the first census to count the prison complex, also misrecorded Butner FCC residents.

That year’s count tallied 385 federal and state prisoners in Granville County and 103 in Durham County. But it failed to record prisoners by township, removing a key piece of evidence.

With more recent data, it would be possible to compare the available numbers against population records from the BOP. But a spokesperson said over email that the BOP information office has no access to records from before 2001—leaving no obvious way to verify whether the miscount spanned an additional 10 years.

How to challenge a census miscount

During a two-and-a-half year window following each decennial census, municipalities can present challenges to recorded data.

The Count Question Resolution Operation (CQR) opened in December and will run through June 2023. Cline said that county governments can present a CQR challenge if they believe their region has been misrepresented.

The Census Bureau investigates these challenges and releases corrections.

Private citizens can’t file a CQR challenge on their own. But they can contact their county government if they find something suspicious in census data.

For Durham County challenges, Cline recommended reaching out to City Manager Wanda Page. Her email address is wanda.page@durhamnc.gov, and her office’s phone number is 919-560-4222.

Where do prisoners “actually reside”?

Some people disagree with the practice of counting prisoners as residents of the county where they’re imprisoned, rather than the county they originally came from.

One vocal reform proponent is the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). This group, which advocates for the rights of communities of color, has filed a lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering in North Carolina’s current district maps.

SCSJ spokesperson Gino Nuzzolillo said in an interview that prisoners feel little connection to the community surrounding their prison and rarely remain in-county after they’re released.

Counting detainees as residing in their prison’s county “unfairly” boosts that region’s political clout, Nuzzolillo said, while also reducing the political power of prisoners’ counties of origin. Since U.S. prisons disproportionately detain Black and Brown people, while towns that house prisons tend to be mostly white, Nuzzolillo sees this as a racial equity issue as well as a political one.

The system’s apparent unfairness leads Nuzzolillo and other activists to refer to the current counting method as “prison gerrymandering.”

Donald Murphy, a BOP spokesperson, did not answer emailed questions about whether the BOP supports existing policies. He instead directed The 9th Street Journal toward a webpage that listed which states currently allow felons to vote and summarized recent legal developments on the issue.

But Jason Torchinsky, general counsel to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, defended the practice in an August interview with the politics news website The Hill.

He argued that prisons “generally rely on local communities for food, water, power, health care [and] support services,” and that government funding should reflect that. Also, since many prisoners come from urban areas, Torchinsky said that failing to count them where they “actually reside” would give undue power to Democratic politicians.

The future of prison census counts

Nevertheless, many states have recently changed their policies.

In 2011, Maryland and New York became the first states to pass laws requiring the census to count prisoners in their counties of origin, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project. Eight other states followed suit in time for the 2020 census, and a ninth will implement changes in 2030.

North Carolina policies remained unchanged during the most recent redistricting cycle, which concluded in November, but the SCSJ lobbied counties around the state to disregard prison populations when drawing district lines. This way, at least in local elections, all votes in a county would carry equal weight.

It’s unclear whether Granville County followed the SCSJ’s advice. When asked, local officials directed The 9th Street Journal to Brooks Pierce law firm, the private company that drew the first draft of their district maps. But a representative at Brooks Pierce declined to comment for this story.

On Nov. 16, the day after Granville County finished revising its maps, County Commissioner Jimmy Gooch described the redistricting process as “a headache” involving many moving parts. He expressed relief that it was over.

“None of us liked the end product,” he said in an interview, “but you live with it.”

Nuzzolillo, meanwhile, said the SCJS will continue advocating for reforms, although changes to census policies won’t affect anything until the next count in 2030. He stressed the importance of fair counts and fair districts for the functioning of democracy.

“The ability to freely cast a ballot,” he said, “means very little if you are doing it in a voting district where your vote has been diluted.”

 

Evicted for the holidays: a padlocked house, a legal maze, and a powerful landlord

When Mamie Green moved into her one-story duplex apartment, it signaled a fresh start. Her apartment – one half of the white house with red brick pillars on Harvard Avenue – was a place she could finally call her own.  

It had one bedroom and a kitchen in the back. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers. 

A high electricity bill set her back on her rent. She had lost her job in March 2020 and was also grieving: Over the course of 18 months, she’d attended one too many family pandemic funerals.  

But unpaid rent is unpaid rent in the eyes of the court – loss and limited income aside. And without the protection of the federal eviction moratorium, Green, like many, found herself in court in defense of her home. 

On Nov. 17, she stood on the same porch she used to wave to neighbors from, as the Durham Sheriff’s department padlocked the door. Rick Soles, the property manager, put the key in the lock himself, she says. 

Green’s eviction story offers a view into a world often unseen by the public. It’s a world in which landlords can evict tenant after tenant in 90 minutes of court, a world where a complex legal system with costly court fees dictate the rules, and a world where even victories have consequences, as the eviction hearing itself still stains rental records.  

Harvard Avenue

Doctors once told Green, 53, she would never be able to live alone again. After five strokes left her right side paralyzed, she learned to talk again and retook her first steps, for the second time. 

The roles reversed between a mother and child – she lived with one of her daughters for five years as they cared for her while she recovered. Doctors told her she should move to a nursing home or continue to live with one of her four daughters.  

She uses a wheelchair and a cane now, but Green proved the doctors wrong. She moved into her new home on Oct 1, 2018 – by herself – regaining some independence with her new set of keys.

PHOTO: Mamie Green says her place on Harvard Ave. was “my castle…my home.”

“I felt so happy and thriving that Rick Soles rented to me,” she said camly, reflecting back to her first few years in the house. “It ain’t the best apartment in the world, but it’s a roof. I can say, ‘This is my castle, this is my home’.”

The lease was straightforward. She would cover electricity, water, gas and trash, among other basics. The landlord covered landscaping. Rent, $595 per month, was due the first of each month. 

Green wore many professional hats. She once was a DJ – playing songs for Durham Public School functions and other events – with her own business. She ran a cleaning business and taught dance. Whatever it took to pay the bills. 

Most recently she worked for Angelica’s Corporation – a company that supplies linens for hospitals – folding clean items piece by piece before they were distributed. Like many, in March 2020 she was laid off and applied for unemployment benefits, only to see a delayed check months later.

Her electricity bill then skyrocketed. She thinks she was charged for the entire house, not just her side of the duplex, she says. So she fell behind on rent. 

In January 2021, a $29.75 late fee was billed with her rent. Then again the next month, and another one the next. 

Green’s story is that of a pandemic nightmare – job loss, family deaths and an impending eviction. 

Round-faced with a ready smile, Green is upbeat and mild-mannered. But sometimes when talk turns to her eviction, she starts to cry. It’s not that she wants pity; in fact, she wants people to stop telling her they’re sorry for her. She just wants Soles to be held responsible for his actions. 

Her mom had died of the virus in a nursing home early in the pandemic. She was told the home would be closed to visitors because of social distancing restrictions, robbing her of a proper goodbye. 

Ten days later, she found her brother dead in his car outside his house.

Next it was her cousin, who died of COVID-19 as well. Four days later, another cousin. On June 15, 2021 she buried her father. It was one year to the day she did the same for her mother. 

“We were like peas in a pod. I could lean on them,” she said in between pauses and tears. “My support system is gone. They’re all in heaven.” 

When Soles started charging her late fees with her rent, Green began to pawn off her old DJ equipment – disco lights, Bluetooth electronics – whatever she could. Every dollar helped.

“I was doing whatever a mother would do or a person in my position would do to keep a roof over her head,” she said. 

But as of September, she owed Soles $3,658.75.

The combination of state and federal eviction moratoriums meant that while her debt grew, Soles could not kick her out of her home. But then on August 26, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling pressed play on an eviction scene that was previously paused for 14 months. 

Lost loved ones and unemployment aren’t legal reasons to miss rent under North Carolina General Statutes. Soles knew this to be true. Green, like many, learned this the hard way. 

Small Claims Court

 In Courtroom 3A of the Durham County Courthouse, small claims hearings are a depressing movie on repeat. In the gray courtroom with mahogany benches, the stage is set: plaintiff to the right, defendant to the left, the magistrate – the highest power in the room, both legally and literally – up above, behind a plexiglass screen, a subtle reminder of the past year. 

It’s Friday, Nov. 12 and starting at 9 a.m., Soles takes his place in the plaintiff’s seat. He fills the docket this morning with 63 summary ejectment hearings –legal jargon for eviction – in an hour and a half span. 

This is not Soles’ first time in Courtroom 3A. In fact, some say he’s a regular. 

Sarah D’Amato, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, who works in the Eviction Diversion Program, knows him well. She says he has “found his niche in the subprime housing market.”

Although Legal Aid only represents 10% of eviction cases in the county, according to D’Amato, she has challenged Soles in court numerous times, helping tenants he hopes to evict. 

There’s a pattern to Soles’ properties, she says. They are often in poor shape and offered at a lower cost. Plus, he tends to turn a blind eye to previous eviction filings or poor credit from prospective tenants’ applications. 

In fact, he is more well known for adding numerous eviction filings to his tenants’ rental histories, once they sign a lease from him. 

In North Carolina, the first step in the eviction process is when a landlord files a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” or an eviction complaint. A court summons informs tenants they are being evicted and orders them to make an appearance in court, where a magistrate will hear their case. Failure to appear means an automatic eviction.

 Sixty-three cases back-to-back is a purposeful move by Soles: As the property manager and plaintiff, he sets the time and date of these hearings.

In a gray and white striped polo, he takes his seat with a stack of papers before him. He knows the drill – sitting stone-faced and serious – and frankly just wants his tenants’ rent. 

Tired of being beat up about evictions which could have been avoided by making payment plans instead of attacking landlords,” he wrote in an email in response to questions. 

One by one Magistrate Terry Fisher calls each tenant to the stage. They take the seat to the left, for the defendant. 

Fisher asks Soles to read the address of the property, state the monthly rent and outstanding balance. 

Four reasons constitute a legal eviction – failure to pay rent, remaining after the date of the lease, a broken lease agreement or criminal activity, such as drug trafficking. In most cases, Soles argues for the first reason. 

Next, Fisher asks the tenant to explain. Cases take only a few minutes each. 

According to Jesse McCoy, a supervising attorney for the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law, the three most common defenses for missed rent are unemployment, illness and transportation issues. McCoy hears these reasons in 60% of cases, he says, but none of them are legal defenses. 

One woman tells Fisher she had COVID-19 and was out of work for 25 days. 

Another man is in the same boat, 40 days out of work after a positive COVID-19 test. A household income sustained by two jobs quickly fell to zero when his wife had to quarantine at home. 

“When you’re behind on the rent, I have to do what the law says,” Fisher replies, as he signs off on complaint after complaint. 

He reminds tenants they have 10 days to appeal the ruling to District Court, in another effort to keep their home. Or they can strike a deal with Soles to pay off the remaining balance. 

If there is no action taken in 10 days, the landlord can padlock the door. 

Appealing the case may allow tenants to remain in their home, but doing so also subjects them to the tangled mess of the court system. For those without legal counsel or the ability to pay a rent bond – a court fee that allows you to remain in your home while your case continues – their case ends at small claims court. 

But for tenants whom Legal Aid advises, an appeal to District Court allows for more legal work and defense on their behalf, according to D’Amato.  

One flaw in the legal system haunts tenants regardless – an eviction filing will appear on a tenant’s rental history no matter the case outcome. Green learned the consequences of this. 

Pandemic Protections

Throughout a pandemic where stay-at-home orders became rule of law, legally removing someone from their home through an eviction was nothing but contradictory. 

Both state and federal governments agreed – the CDC Eviction Moratorium meant landlords could not evict tenants. Doing so would only contribute to the spread of the virus.  

But McCoy knew this day would end soon. And the prognosis was bad. An extended pause on evictions could only signal a mass influx of summary ejectment filings to come.

“Talk was a tsunami of evictions once the moratorium goes away,” said McCoy. “That evictions are going to be going left and right.” 

Yet he felt Durham County was better situated to handle this wave than most areas. Since 2017, an Eviction Diversion Program has helped mediate landlord and tenant disputes in court and provided legal counsel for those facing eviction. 

The problem existed long before the pandemic erupted. Durham once had the highest eviction rate among North Carolina’s ten largest counties, according to Duke Law.

From 2010 to 2018 the average cost of rent steadily increased from $792 to $1,014 across the county. Although evictions have decreased over the last decade, the county’s rising housing prices and continued development downtown present a predicament.  

The looming threat of post-moratorium evictions signaled to McCoy that something else still needed to be done. 

So he, along with Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, created a pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic in the Durham County Courthouse on Friday mornings.

Housing law is confusing to the average person. McCoy knows that. So the clinic offers a wealth of information about aid and assistance, and breaks down legal jargon. 

“We could be a one-stop shop, where people who are in need of emergency rental assistance will be able to come and apply for the emergency rental assistance, as well as get information about or just legal advice about an eviction case or generally about their housing situation,” he said. 

Now, North Carolina Central University is operating a similar clinic on Wednesday mornings. 

In May 2021 the Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) opened, approving applicants on a first come, first served basis. Applications, found on the Durham County Department of Social Services website, were then prioritized by looming eviction filings and income. 

These funds provided $13.9 million dollars in assistance to 2,389 households. But after processing over 4,000 applications, DSS closed the application due to insufficient funds in October.  

This leaves over 3,000 applications pending.

Green was one of many who was approved for ERAP funding. But Soles didn’t accept rental assistance. And with one eviction now on her rental history, the prospect of finding a home in a limited rental market is a new challenge in itself.  

Moving Out 

 When Green first moved into the white house on Harvard Avenue, the previous tenant lingered to give her a necessary warning:

The apartment had black mold – so much mold that it made the tenant’s young daughter sick, Green was told. There were also rats. Lots of rats. 

Green wrote these things down for Soles. But he did nothing, she says, her voice racing with anger. So Green bought a bottle of Clorox for $5 a bottle. She now laughs at the thought that she could clean it herself. 

Her brother bought her a new bed for the apartment. Soon, rats chewed through its base. So he bought her another one. The same thing happened again. 

Next, Green went to Aaron’s Furniture to buy another replacement. It would ultimately take her two years to pay off the cost of the bed. But that bed too, succumbed to gnawing and little bite marks. 

Green filed a complaint with the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services. An inspection of the house found cracked ceilings, foundational issues that allow pests to get in, and no functioning windows in the bedroom, among other violations.  

“LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX HOME FOR DISABLED RESIDENT’S HOME,” reads the inspection review. “CANNOT USE RAMP AND LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX ISSUE.”                          

Rats were not her only house guests: bees and other bugs also found a way in through cracks in the ceilings and holes in the wall. 

“I bought all these supplies to keep this thing fixed up, like I’m running school or hospital,” she said. “I don’t have that type of money.”

When she told Soles about her unwanted guests, she says he told her it was his “job to keep someone in the house, not keep stuff out.” 

With an impending eviction, Green knew her best bet was to move.

     PHOTO: Green lived in a duplex apartment in this house on Harvard Avenue.

When she was approved for ERAP funding, she was given the same advice. She was told Soles was refusing rental assistance funds and instead taking his tenants to court. 

Green had previously applied for an apartment in the new Willard Street complex through Durham Housing Authority. Over a year later, her application was approved. 

“It’s gonna be a blessing to be out of this nerve-wracking house that’s driving me crazy,” she told herself. “I felt like this was going to be a new start for me.” 

She offered Soles a settlement agreement, in hopes of erasing his eviction filing from her record. 

He rejected it. Instead, he wanted to see her in court. 

Green first faced Soles in small claims court on Oct. 13. She appealed the judgment, sending the case to District Court, and paid a prorated rent bond to stay in her house through October. 

But at the start of each month, another payment to the court is due. For November, she owed $595, one month’s rent, to fend off eviction while her case was in court. 

That money, she did not have. 

Instead of packing her bags for her move to Willard Street, Green found herself packing  boxes with nowhere to go. 

Soles told her she had four days to vacate the apartment. With an eviction filing on her rental history, Willard Street would no longer rent to her. She also lost her Section 8 housing voucher, which would have covered half of her new rent. 

“You just cost me my house. You just cost me my apartment. And you just cost me my Section 8,” she said, defeated. “He yanked the rug up from under me. He shattered my life.”

 With the little money she had saved, Green paid $89 a night to stay at La Quinta Inn. But she could only afford three nights. 

Now, she is staying with a friend in Graham, 30 minutes from Durham. She has not lived outside of Durham in almost 50 years. Her stuff is dispersed among family and friends – keeping her belongings in their cars, homes and storage units. 

As a disabled woman, the instability and stress do no favors for Green’s health. She found herself in the hospital the other week, with doctors telling her that her blood sugar, blood pressure and potassium were all off.  

“We are going to say him evicting you is the reason you’re in this predicament,” doctors told her. 

With the case appealed to District Court, Green and D’Amato will have another chance to bring up the habitability issues with the Harvard Avenue home in January. 

If she wins, the eviction can be dismissed. The file will remain on her history, but in future rental applications she can clarify that she has not been evicted. 

If Soles wins, the ruling will stand. Regardless, Green is still in the hunt for a new home – the same fresh start Harvard Avenue once gave her. 

“’I’m not giving up. I’m a fighter,” she said. “He just opened up a can of worms.”

PHOTO ABOVE:  A orange notice shows that Durham deputies padlocked Mamie Green’s house after Rick Soles ordered her evicted for failure to pay rent.

 

 

Reflections: Can reporting spotlight truth — and honor humanity?

I’ve been thinking about what journalists promise readers and our sources. We promise them the truth. We promise accuracy, honesty, credibility. We promise that they can trust the words we write. 

But these promises mean nothing if the stories we tell aren’t told with care, if we forget that journalism is, at its core, an inquiry into what it means to be human. 

I’ve been thinking about what it means to honor that humanity. 

* * * 

On my first visit to the Durham County Courthouse, I’m so worried about being turned away at the doors, as some of my classmates have. When I finally sit down in domestic violence court, it dawns on me that I didn’t consider what to look for once I got in. 

I tell myself I’m just here to observe, that I’ll find a story next time. I watch the session unfold, listen for words I recognize, and feel the same way I do at sports events — the most basic rules apparent, but the technicalities, procedure, and players unfamiliar. I always end up watching the fans for most of the game anyway.  

At roll call, an assistant district attorney mentions that a defendant is being brought in from custody. I’m surprised by the prospect of seeing something I’ve only read about in the news. I wonder if this man and his case are a story worth telling. 

I don’t have to wait long. Halfway through the docket, a bailiff leads a man in a Durham County Jail jumpsuit to a seat at the front of the courtroom. I later learn his name is Juan Gomez. He’s 32 years old. And he’s looking for a plea deal after assaulting a woman. 

But his case isn’t what I find most interesting. His case isn’t really what I end up writing about. 

Minutes before Gomez’s case is called, two older women quietly slide into the bench next to me. The younger of the two fumbles with her phone to silence it, then asks me to help. These women are nervous — the older woman wrings her hands and the other picks rhythmically at a scab. I follow their gaze and I realize why. 

They look at Gomez with sad eyes and sigh deeply. They watch a loved one sit just out of reach, his fate out of their control, and I feel my chest tighten. These are the scenes in the courtroom that I rarely read about.  

His victim, it turns out, is also in court. And suddenly, the two women are sharing a knowing glance with each other when they hear the ADA say her name, craning their necks to find her in the benches. 

There’s palpable tension all around the courtroom and no one’s saying a word to each other. I scribble down every sigh and every glance and make mental notes of how the air in the room feels so that I can relive it later when I write. It is startling to see the effects of a crime ripple in front of you.  

This is the story I end up telling. 

I realize, later, that this silent conversation won’t be recorded in the court transcript. In Gomez’s case file, there will be no document that describes how these two women held their breath when the judge accepted the plea. There will be no mention of the two women at all. 

* * *

There’s a line I once read from a T.S. Eliot poem that goes, “At the still point of the turning world.” This is how that courtroom felt in those fifteen minutes, how it’s preserved in my mind. A still point. 

But the world keeps turning — the cases that come to court play out beyond the courtroom and the stories journalists tell continue off the page. It is easy to forget this. 

After the judge hands down her ruling, the defense attorney whisks the two women from the courtroom. I never found out how they knew Gomez. For days after, I kicked myself for this, for being too scared to approach them, too terrified that my questions would translate into violations of their privacy.   

But even if I’d found out, I don’t think the story would have changed much. 

What this piece illuminated for me is that what happens in the courtroom, and thus, the pieces journalists write, don’t just implicate the names listed on the case file — the defendant and victim. Those two women could have been his mother and grandmother, his siblings, his friends — it was the fact that they could have been so many people impacted by this case and my reporting that struck me. 

Rarely do we talk about this effect, the sadder echo of both victims’ and defendants’ loved ones, disassembled and undone by the justice system. But before that day, I also hadn’t given much thought to how it played out in journalism. 

The legal system does not always promise compassion. In journalism, the truth does not always promise humanity. 

But maybe I can promise it in my reporting, when I remember that the people who grant me their stories are trusting me with not only the present, but the future — that of their own, their loved ones, and the people they have yet to meet but one day might. 

This doesn’t mean sacrificing truth for compassion, but rather recognizing that sometimes the truth is far larger and more complex than we initially understand it to be. I am still trying to reconcile the necessity of telling a story and the impossibility of knowing it in all its totality. 

And maybe I can promise humanity in the stories I choose to tell — stories that unfold when no one else is watching, when journalism becomes a testament to the still points in a world that never stops turning. 

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Milla Surjadi

Cold case sexual assault unit whittles sprawling rape kit backlog

A visitor discovered the first victim half-naked in a bathroom at Duke Hospital, recovering from having been choked unconscious. Bits of her attacker’s flesh were lodged under her fingernails, the remnants of a violent struggle.

 A month and a half later, another woman was walking home on Ellerbe Creek Trail when the attacker again appeared and strangled his victim from behind until she blacked out. This time, he raped her. 

Despite a sexual assault kit collected from the second victim, as well as surveillance footage of the first victim and DNA samples from her fingernails, these 2015 attacks went unpunished for six years.

But the attacker, 33-year-old Emanuel Burch, couldn’t hide forever. Thanks to a state-funded initiative with the Durham Police Department (DPD), Burch was sentenced on Oct. 25 to at least 16 years in prison—the latest in a string of convictions in rape cold cases.

Since 2019, the DPD’s Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has been working through an enormous logjam in mostly untested rape kits. The unit has identified at least three other repeat offenders and has charged over a dozen suspects in total. And they’re only about halfway done.

Said Lt. Stephen Vaughan, who works closely with the unit: “We still have a lot of work to do.” 

A massive backlog

When North Carolina passed the Survivor Act in 2019, the state had one of the country’s most extensive rape kit backlogs. Of the more than 16,000 kits left untested in North Carolina, 1,700 were in Durham County, The News & Observer reported.

Vaughan blames the limitations of old DNA testing technology, as well as previous state restrictions on when rape kits could be processed.

At an October 2020 news conference, however, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein also referenced a lack of “sensitivity” toward sexual assault victims. He said some police departments used to dismiss a case if the alleged victim’s story varied at all between retellings.

“There’s [now] greater scientific knowledge about the impact of trauma,” Stein said, referring to research that shows traumatic memories are often shaky or inconsistent. “There’s more understanding about victims’ rights.”

The Survivor Act allocated $6 million to jumpstart progress on untested rape kits. In the past two years, Durham County has submitted almost its entire backlog to a private testing company in Virginia. 

Bode Technology is working through these kits — some of which date back to 1988 — alongside a mountain of other kits from throughout North Carolina and other states. Any time the lab gets a hit on a Durham DNA sample, it notifies the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit.

Catching a rapist 

Police got their first strong lead on the two strangulation attacks in September 2019.

Unlike in many other cold cases, investigators had sent this rape kit for testing shortly after collecting it, said prosecutor Blake Norman. They identified leads and pored through available evidence. But they were unable to match the kit’s DNA to any suspects, and the case soon went cold.

Investigators have two main ways of identifying criminals through DNA.

The simplest way is if a person is arrested on a felony charge. Law enforcement collect alleged felons’ DNA and upload it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national genetic database. Testing companies like Bode regularly check their databases’ DNA against CODIS and notify investigators when there’s a match.

This can provide powerful evidence against a suspect. 

“You take away the argument of, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it’ or ‘I wasn’t there,’” Norman said. 

When there isn’t a CODIS match, investigators can also turn to genetic genealogy. Genetic profiling companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com send their data to law enforcement. So if a suspect’s close family members take one of these tests, that can help investigators home in on the criminal even if the suspect’s DNA isn’t in CODIS. 

By itself, however, genetic genealogy doesn’t provide enough evidence to arrest someone. That’s because it’s imprecise and usually can’t distinguish a perpetrator from, say, their sibling. Investigators need the suspect’s own DNA, and they sometimes have to find creative ways of gathering it—digging through trash cans, collecting cigarette butts, etc.

Durham police identified Burch when they got a CODIS hit following his arrest in another state, Norman said.

A cheek swab confirmed the match, and Burch was charged with strangulation, sexual battery and attempted rape in the first attack, as well as rape and attempted murder in the second. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted rape and attempted murder charges.

Pressing charges

Generally, the judicial system invests little time or resources into crime victims. Prosecutors represent the state, not victims, and some Durham victims have complained about a lack of support from courts and say they have little influence on how their cases are prosecuted.

But the Special Victims Unit, which handles child abuse cases as well as sexual assaults, works differently.

Investigators say they don’t prosecute alleged rapists until they contact survivors and get their consent. Since many attackers are already serving extensive prison sentences by the time police identify them, investigators say, victims sometimes choose not to press charges.

At an Apr. 13 press conference, Vaughan said the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit had found DNA matches in 17 cases, resulting in 13 suspects being charged.

Once the DPD contacts an alleged victim, Vaughan said police direct the victim to an in-house advocate who works with them and helps them decide whether to go forward with the case. Victims may also speak with the Durham Crisis Response Center, which offers free counseling and confidential services for survivors and their loved ones.

Jasmin Young-Bradshaw, the crisis center’s interim executive director, stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to victim advocacy.

“We’re here to listen,” Young-Bradshaw said. “Really, it’s about supporting them in a way that they see is fit.”

Securing a conviction

In addition to Burch, the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has identified at least three other serial attackers.

One suspect, who faces charges in one Durham attack and two attacks in Florida, was still awaiting trial as of the April 2021 press conference. Another pleaded guilty in August to two counts of rape. And the third—a 60-year-old—died in March while facing two charges each of rape and sexual battery.

As for Burch, he pleaded guilty as charged in the first 2015 attack and took an Alford plea in the second. This means that he denies sexually assaulting the victim, but admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.

A judge ordered Burch to undergo psychiatric counseling, receive substance abuse treatment and participate in a behavior adjustment program for sexual offenders. Altogether, Burch may serve up to 24 years and 3 months behind bars.

It’s unclear if Duke Hospital made any changes to its security following the attack there. A spokesperson said over email that she would try to find out, but several weeks later, she had yet to provide details.

Durham County’s backlog of rape kits is no longer growing, Vaughan said. Police send most kits for testing within a week, and survivors can view the current status of their kit via an online portal.

DNA testing continues to get faster and more accurate, and Vaughan believes sexual assault investigations will improve.

“As the technology gets better and better and we learn more about it and get more used to it,” he said, “it just becomes a better tool.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the following resources are available:

  • Durham Crisis Response Center 24-hour help line: 919-403-6562 (English); 919-519-3735 (Spanish)
  • Durham Police Department Special Victims Unit: 919-560-4440
  • NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 919-871-1015

PHOTO ABOVE: Emanuel Burch may serve more than 24 years for strangulation and sexual battery in two Durham attacks in 2015.

Reflections: The Podcast, Episode 2

 

In this latest Reflections podcast, Lilly Clark talks about how the news media’s coverage of the courts system sometimes does more harm than good. And she offers some thoughts on how reporters and editors can do better.  Listen on Apple or Spotify.

This podcast is part of a series that features 9th Street Journal reporters discussing lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. The first podcast spotlighted Grace Abels.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.